In early 2020, archaeologists unearthed a 2,600-year-old shrine and sarcophagus dedicated to Romulus. The exciting discovery and announcement brought Rome’s fabled founder to the forefront, and he once again became en vogue. For some, it was potentially tantalising evidence supporting the myth of a Roman hero founder, but others are far more dubious.
After all, the canonical Romulus legend is littered with fantastic episodes that defy belief. But few people realise that numerous ancient writers recorded alternatives to the more familiar Romulus tale, and these accounts could conceivably be rooted in reality.
Shockingly for a myth that allegedly has roughly 2,800-year-old roots, most Westerners can recount much of the orthodox Romulus tale: Romulus was born to a priestess and the war god Mars, but a rogue king condemned the infant to die whereupon the babe was left for dead on the Tiber River’s banks.
Despite this brush with danger, a she-wolf named Lupa rescued and nursed Romulus until a kindly shepherd adopted him. 18 years or so later, the boy founded Rome and became its first king, but his reign was eventually cut short when, at the gods’ direction, he ascended into the heavens where he became a deity.
While there are minor variations of this ancient legend, this broadly represents the canonical account that many of us fondly remember learning in primary school. However, it reads like a fictional fairy tale, and modern and ancient thinkers understandably share a healthy scepticism of these far-fetched components.
So, was Romulus the son of the god Mars, rescued by a she-wolf, and miraculously transmitted to the heavens? Probably not, but the ancient writers may have had reason to create these supernatural stories.
The claims of Romulus’ divine parentage ought to generate scepticism right out of the gate and so should the tale about Lupa. Wolves have no reason to nurse human children; they are more likely to ruthlessly devour them.
Likewise, Romulus’ dramatic ascent into the heavens to live with his godly father Mars sounds suspicious to even the most naïve of people. Nevertheless, this is what many ancient writers recorded, but there are other, more believable versions of the founder’s supposed life.
According to an account that Dionysius of Halicarnassus recorded, Romulus’ mother – Rhea Silvia – wasn’t raped by the god Mars. Rather, either one of her admirers or perhaps the villainous Alban king – Amulius – ravaged her.
If it was Amulius, then he may have even dressed in regal raiment in order to conceal his identity, which may have made him appear godlike. This could have laid the foundation for the highly questionable divine conception tale.
Similarly, the Lupa story has given historians plenty to doubt, but there may be a much simpler underlying truth. Some ancient writers, including Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, claimed that a wolf named Lupa may not have protected and nourished Romulus.
Instead, a prostitute did, given that lupa was an ancient slang term that most closely translates to “whore.” For the ancients, the she-wolf legend must have neatly side-stepped the unbecoming account of the prostitute, while still seeming to maintain a tiny kernel of truth.
Ascent to heaven
Toward the end of Romulus’ reign – as some ancient writers alleged – Romulus was called to the heavens and disappeared without leaving a trace behind. Then he underwent an apotheosis and became the god Quirinus.
Again, this rightly raises some eyebrows, but Livy, Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and others mentioned that this might not have been the case. They reported that some believed Romulus had become an unbearable tyrant, and a corps of Romans hatched a plot to assassinate the despot.
According to one tradition, the members of the Roman Senate rushed Romulus and slew him. To hide their deed, they chopped the man into tiny bits, hid the parts under their togas, and then secretly buried the remains. At some point after the killing, they announced that Romulus had ascended into the heavens, which appears to be a convenient story to hide their crime.
It’s easy to see why so many immediately disregard the Romulus legend, given the fantastic episodes within it. But unfortunately, too few are aware of the alternative versions of the canonical Romulus myth, which makes his life seem much more plausible. Nevertheless, the orthodox Romulus account is far more fascinating, and it seems obvious why the ancient writers invented it: it bolstered their founder’s reputation and may have concealed uglier truths.
So, how much – if any – of the Romulus legend is true? That’s an age-old debate that seems unlikely to be conclusively resolved anytime soon. For now, however, it’s up to the reader to decide whether there’s a shred of veracity in the Romulus myth.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at a Washington DC-based think tank, and he graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in philosophy. He has had a long-standing fascination with ancient Rome and has written extensively on various aspects of its history. His book ‘Romulus: The Legend of Rome’s Founding Father’ is published by Pen & Sword Books.